The Right, the Neoliberal Academy, and how to Fight Back

A talk I have given since 2017; please go back and read the post Neoliberalism and White Supremacy as newer context for this piece. Thanks!

Since a series of high-profile right-wing campaigns of faculty bullyingfrom Johnny Eric Williams to Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor, George Ceccariello-Maher, and Rochelle Guttierez—the white supremacist blitz has continued against critical and activist scholars. We activists who have undergone this abuse get calls daily from others needing advice and support.

In my own case, an offhand tweet asking Syracuse activists to join the small group protesting the white supremacists and Islamophobes in Act for America got massive circulation on alt-Right websites and ended up in Ann Coulter’s Twitter feed—effectively aiming two million arrows straight at me. I began being called out on Twitter and harassed on Facebook and even mail at my home; grotesque misogynist, fat-shaming, and homophobic threats and even hard mail at my home—demonstrating that these people know where I live. This sounds trivial, but it’s not: They even threatened my dog. How did they know I have a dog?

Writing in the Intercept, Micah Lee describes the strategies through which the online alt-Right stalks, harasses, and “doxxes” its enemies. Through an analysis of the growing Right-wing website (called, incongruously, Pony Power), Lee demonstrates that what appears to be random efforts by fascist individuals is actually a carefully crafted campaign in which groups choose targets and devise harassment tactics. Images of a student wearing an anti-fascist t-shirt appeared on the site, for example and readers coordinated such a heavy assault on her that she was forced to shut down her social media and go into hiding.

It is natural for targeted faculty (and others) to react to such an assault—replete with threats of violence and death, gendered sexual slurs, and racist and Islamophobic epithets—as a personal, debilitating experience. However, it is important to make it clear what is really going on: a social movement tactic that is closely tied to other, long-term attempts to shut down the critical potential of universities. Attacks on professors are collective, social movement phenomena.

But target Johnny Eric Williams calls our attention to the dark side of this movement:

What is being directed at me, Keeanga-Yamattha Taylor, George Ciccariello-Maher, Tommy Curry, Saida Grundy, Dana Cloud, and many other unnamed critical scholars is not a just political movement that seeks to win over people via persuasion using ideas; rather it is an organized effort to intimidate and terrorize professors like us into capitulating to oppression.

Williams adds, “Never, ever will this happen.”

These attacks are frequently led by students in the right-wing front group Turning Point USA, a group whose growth President Trump has emboldened. At the University of Illinois, graduate student Tariq Khan was targeted by Turning Point, which used the university admistration to discipline and silence him, threatening him and his children at the same time. Turning Point secured a “Conduct Probation” against Khan, a move may jeopardize his ability to secure university funds to complete his doctoral studies—but more than that, it represents an incredibly effective way to muzzle Khan and his political activities for the rest of his time at UIUC.

Alvarez notes,

Something cold, dark, and vicious is taking hold of American academia. You can feel it on campuses around the country. Activists on the right are seizing this moment to storm the “ivory tower,” taking advantage of the Trumpian sea change and spurred on by a majority of Republicans who now (apparently) have a negative view of colleges and universities. As a result, we are seeing abundant, ongoing evidence of a ramped-up assault on higher education as we know it. Whether posed as responses to “political correctness” and the supposed “persecution” of conservatives on campus, as efforts to expose and combat liberal/left bias in curricula, as principled defenses of “free speech” and “open debate,” or as just a boldfaced attack on “elitism,” the collective components of this assault have fused together in the assembly of a formidable anti-intellectual, neo-McCarthyist inquisition.

Of course, it is singularly horrifying that neo-Nazis have begun marching and organizing on campuses. The white supremacist front group Turning Point has attempted to win student organization status in several places. The presence of outright thuggery on campus seems like a new development in the Trump era.


But faculty, staff, and students have been taking heat from all directions for a long time. Anti-intellectualism as an attempt to discredit Communism dates to the 1950s. The university at that time was highly corporatized and largely captured for use by the militarized state during the Cold War in spite of emerging democratic and Marxist critique in history, economics, and across the humanities.

There was a time when campuses were sites of struggles over freedom of expression, inclusion and integration, and the embrace of a proliferation of knowledge from marginalized perspectives. The universities of the 1950s were heavily corporatized and state-controlled—until the civil rights, anti-war, women’s, and free-speech movements broke out in campus rebellions across the country. Disciplines devoted to critique and empowering knowledge—women’s studies and Black studies, for example—exploded as hubs of thought and organizing. All of the disciplines were challenged by their members to incorporate new voices and overthrow canonical thought.

Henry Heller describes how the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley rejected the idea of a corporate university and asserted the mission of a democratic institution that could produce knowledge for the common good. Heller writes that their movement was a struggle over the purpose of knowledge (388). And the activists won a great deal: the right to assemble and protest, the inclusion of Black and immigrant students, attention to the oppression of women and exclusion of LGBTQ citizens, and more.

In a famous speech from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964, Mario Savio declared:

We have an autocracy which runs this university. It’s managed. We asked the following: if President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the Regents in his telephone conversation, why didn’t he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received — from a well-meaning liberal — was the following: He said, “Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?” That’s the answer! Now, I ask you to consider: if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I’ll tell you something: the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw material[s] that don’t mean to have any process upon us, don’t mean to be made into any product, don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!

     [Wild applause.]

    There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

In the last few years, thousands of American students demonstrated that they at least felt the urgency of the times. They moved actively and directly against racial injustices, the threat of war, violations of individual rights of conscience, and, less frequently, against economic manipulation. They succeeded in restoring a small measure of controversy to the campuses after the stillness of the McCarthy period. They succeeded, too, in gaining some concessions from the people and institutions they opposed, especially in the fight against racial bigotry.

Savio, like all campus activists in U.S. history, was charged with incivility and a breach of decorum. There is nothing like leaping onto a police vehicle to give an incendiary speech. The fact of the matter is, however, that anyone challenging power relations stands out as the person fostering antagonism.

Why Universities

The university is located in a permanent position of social influence. It’s educational function makes it indispensable and automatically makes it a crucial institution in the formation of social attitudes. Second, in an unbelievably complicated world, it is the central institution for organizing, evaluating and transmitting knowledge. Third, the extent to which academic resources presently are used to buttress immoral social practice is revealed, first, by the extent to which defense contracts make the universities engineers of the arms race. Too, the use of modern social science as a manipulative tool reveals itself in the “human relations” consultants to the modern corporations, who introduce trivial sops to give laborers feelings of “participation” or “belonging,” while actually deluding them in order to further exploit their labor. And, of course, the use of motivational research is already infamous as a manipulative aspect of American politics. But these social uses of the universities’ resources also demonstrate the unchangeable reliance by men of power on the men and storehouses of knowledge: this makes the university functionally tied to society in new ways, revealing new potentialities, new levers for change. Fourth, the university is the only mainstream institution that is open to participation by individuals of nearly any viewpoint.

These, at least, are facts, no matter how dull the teaching, how paternalistic the rules, how irrelevant the research that goes on. Social relevance, the accessibility to knowledge, and internal openness–these together make the university a potential base and agency in a movement of social change.

Campuses and movements

Unfortunately, the backlash came quickly and has lasted to the present day. With only the sporadic eruption of militant movements to defend the gains that were made, universities have increasingly reasserted the logic of commodification and austerity.

Neoliberalism is the regime of austerity and privatization, financialization and globalization that rose in the 1970s economic crisis to displace welfare capitalism with something more ruthless. The Guardian defines neoliberalism this way:

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning. Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

This religiosity about the market drives the precarious financialization that led to the 2008 economic crisis and a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.

In the 1970s the anti-government ideas of Freidrich Hayek, articulated as neoliberalism in the 1950s, triumphed over the Keynesian approach defined by the New Deal. In this context, there was a backlash during the 1980s against campus radicalism under the banner of a culture war and an attack on “political correctness”—the ruling class’s misleading term for the inclusion of minorities and women and our insights.

As Henry Heller argues in his book The Capitalist University, this backlash was tied to the

drive to make academics more productive or to proletarianize them, erasing the difference between more or less self-ruling tenured faculty and contractual labor. Universities increasingly began to operate according to the rules of private business. . . This trend also brought with it the narrowing and channeling of curriculums and the privatization of knowledge” (loc. 111).

At the same time, knowledge increasingly because treated as a commodity, a source of external funding and intellectual property.

Since the 1990s, administrators have escalated the rhetoric and practices of austerity, claiming budget deficits to deny faculty raises, student scholarships, and staff jobs—all while spending millions on the beautification of campuses and administrative bloat. Tuition at public and private universities has skyrocketed alongside billions of dollars in student debt—impossible to be repaid.

The logic of austerity also means exacerbating exclusions of Black, Muslim, immigrant, queer, disabled, and other marginalized students and rejects the knowledge that Black and brown students, women, and LGBTQ* people fought to include in our curricula. In this way, making campus safe for capitalism requires making campuses safe for white supremacy. As the scholar Joshua Inwood argues, race and capitalism are co-constituted with each other.

From the beginning mercantile capitalism depended on the work of slaves to engage in what Marx called primitive accumulation of resources to launch the economy to next level. It was not until the emergence of such societies over a period of centuries that slaves were defined by their skin color. As numerous scholars have argued, rising “democratic” societies had to reconcile their discourse of freedom, justice, and equality with the dehumanization and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of people. Thus was “race” born. The Civil War, in Eric Foner’s terms, completed the American Revolution. But through the mid 20th Century the system used a racialized system to continue to discipline through lynching and other means Black people in order to discipline the whole working class.

The civil rights movement challenged all of that.

In Keynesian or welfare capitalism, the pressure of the civil rights movement and massive cultural change saw an expansion of discourse about race and equality (despite Moynihan’s pathologization of the Black family). But with the economic crisis of 1977,  

The legislative onslaught against universities is best exemplified by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s deep cuts in the budgets of state universities and pressed for the elimination of tenure—and the academic freedom that it guarantees to scholars engaged in critique, controversy, and activism.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reports that state funding of higher education in 2017 is $9 billion less than in 2008, writing, “The funding decline has contributed to higher tuition and reduced quality on campuses. . . . At a time when the benefit of a college education has never been greater, state policymakers have made going to college less affordable and less accessible to the students most in need.”

Tuitions are rising at a record a rate since the 2008 economic crisis, by 35% on average between 2008 and 2017, must faster than the median income. Moreover, universities are making deep cuts in faculty and staff positions as well as in vital student services, such as health care.

Alongside these developments we have seen the rise of for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix, which promise students jobs after graduation and rake in tuition profits without following through on those guarantees. Even public and non-profit universities began to act like corporations, privileging the bottom line over faculty and staff salaries, graduate student teaching and fellowship positions, and community needs.

In this context, the tactic of individually bullying professors beginning in the 2000s should be recognized as part of this larger pattern of neoliberal assault on both resources and ideas. I endured my first of three bullying campaigns when with David Horowitz’s published a list of what he considered to be the “100 most dangerous professors.” I was on that list as a result of my opposition to war. Later, I was targeted as an outspoken advocate of Palestinian liberation.

In a study of my own hate mail, I discovered how the people attacking me were organized and trained through right-wing radio programs and websites in the language to use against intellectuals and set off as a bow sets off arrows. It was clear that it was the right-wing culture leaders and pundits who were leading the charge, and that it was not about me or any other individual. It was a clear, organized political effort to demean and demoralize us—thus weakening campuses as sites of critique and activism.

The assault is a product not only of a recent proto-fascist movement in our society; it also participates in a longer history of pressure on the academy to give in completely to the imperatives of neoliberal capitalism—a version of capitalism that requires greater austerity, privatization of social responsibility, massive student debt, and a resulting downward standard of living among ordinary people.

The other thing it requires is a quiescent population. The system’s advocates want to squash the creativity, energy, and openness to radical politics among the next generations of citizens. The state, the corporations, and their pundits think that they can make campuses safe for white supremacists—who are again pitching their campaigns against anti-racist “political correctness.” Heller writes that a crisis-ridden capitalism is trying to make the university an ajuct of private enterprise (118). They think that they can siphon students into business schools controlled by Koch or STEM fields where the university and external funders have the rights to and profits from cutting-edge research.

Most universities face serious financial difficulty due to the decline in public support. In response, they have dramatically raised tuition and adopted an ideology unmoored from any responsibility for the common good.

The ambassadors of the Right think they can starve graduate students and bully faculty into silence. They believe that students who can’t afford higher education should be left out in the cold. Obviously, we can’t—we won’t—let that happen. What are the best ways to fight back? Where does our strength lie?

Recently I published a brief “how to” for academics facing right-wing bullying at https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2017/11/07/tips-help-academics-respond-right-wing-attacks-essay. Targeted faculty should secure their safety, use evidence and public support to pressure administrators, and build movements in their defense. We should also start a list or network of targeted intellectuals, because there is nowhere to keep up to date with the Right’s campaigns or to offer support to the next targets.

But we must think even more broadly that that.

The American Association of University Professors is a good resource for organizing. So are particular political organizations, for example the Campus Antifascist Network.

At this point, in addition to those resources, the biggest sources of power for us are unions.

Since the National Labor Relations Board Yeshiva decision in 2016, Graduate students in both public and private universities across the country have started union campaigns and used their unions to win real gains and protect themselves against austerity and exploitation. Despite some defeats and bitter opposition by administration, they have won higher stipends and better working conditions at Columbia, Yale, Chicago, NYU, and many other places.

It is more difficult to organize faculty into unions because professors think primarily about themselves as individuals in a meritocracy, that if they just work hard enough, publish enough, get good teaching evaluations, and so on—they will be protected from precarity. But over the decades of the right-wing capitalist assault on the academy, things have only gotten worse for professors. And where faculty are unionized, they do better. It is little wonder that faculty unions are on the rise.

Last year, contingent and part-time faculty at Duke won higher pay and longer-term appointments. Administrators at Ithaca College, threatened with a strike, gave in to worker demands. In November, in a union election held by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Fordham University contingent faculty voted overwhelmingly to join Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 200United. There are dozens of examples of faculty unionizing over the past year.

(See my post here for more recent examples from the AAUP.)

The other source of power we have is unity. As Heller argues, the decimation of universities through from the 1980s through the 2000s generated theoretical approaches to the world mired in pessimism and narrow organizing based on identities rather than our common cause, all under the banner of postmodernism. Heller aligns postmodernism with neoliberalism’s intense privatization of social concern to commodified identities and private life.

But we ought not apply such a narrow vision from our present historical moment. Learning the alternative histories and experiences of oppressed people could lead naturally to challenging the system that requires that oppression: capitalism. We can only mount such a challenge together. As a unified economic force, unionized professors and graduate students can threaten a university’s profitability and reputation. It can bargain for all faculty and/or all graduate students as a bloc, securing protections and advances for all.

We are not just defending ourselves against the thuggery of the Trump era. We are pushing back against a decades-long attempt to render our campuses safe for capitalism and dangerous for the rest of us. Our collective, unified, economic power is the most serious weapon we have in this fight. We can use it not only to improve the terms of our work but also to keep our public spaces of dialogue, critique, controversy, and activism alive. As inspiration, we must look to the past when students, staff, and faculty rebelled against McCarthyism and the corporate university and demanded change on campuses around the world.

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

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